So then, we do good works, but nor for merit– for what would we merit? Rather, we are indebted to God for the good works we do, and not he to us, since it is he who “works in us both to will and do according to his good pleasure– thus keeping in mind what is written: “When you have done all that is commanded you, then you shall say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have done what it was our duty to do.’” Yet we do not wish to deny that God rewards good works– but it is by his grace that he crowns his gifts.
One of the most important theological subjects is that which deals with how we are to view good works in the life a believer. The Apostle Paul, everywhere, explains that good works do not, in any sense, play into our justification (i.e. our right standing) before God (Rom. 4:1-8; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 3:7-9; and Titus 3:4-7). However, the Scripture also speaks of believers having been “created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10), that we are to be “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14 and 3:1) and that Jesus commends the righteous for what they did for His sake (Matt. 25:31-36). So how do we reconcile the fact that we are not accepted on the basis of our good works and yet that God accepts our good works as good works done by us–when we know how imperfect and sin-tainted they are?
In Institutes (3.17.8), John Calvin explained how a believer’s good works are justified by the perfection of Jesus so that they are reckoned to him as their own good works before God. When he entered in on an explanation of the phrase, “imputed for righteousness” in Psalm 106:30-21, Calvin first suggested that we must be clear that we are speaking of “what place [good works] are to hold after justification by faith has been established.” Up front, Calvin carefully distinguishes between the place of works before and after justification. Calvin understood that while the Scriptures speak of the alien righteousness (i.e. the righteousness of Christ) imputed to us for justification,there is a personal righteousness that followed which we receive by virtue of our union with Christ in sanctification. The good works lived out by the believer are made acceptable by the saving work of Christ. In this sense we can speak of a double justification: 1) the justification of the believer by faith alone in Christ alone apart from any works; and 2) the justification of the good works of the believer after justification.
The good works of the believer who has been justified by faith alone in Christ alone are imputed to the believer as if they were his or her own. This is not to say that they, in any sense, play into the believer’s justification before God. Justification is merely the forgiveness of sins and the imputed righteousness of Jesus alone to the one who believes in Him. Calvin goes to great lengths to make this clear when he says, “Justification, moreover, we thus define: The sinner being admitted into communion with Christ is, for his sake, reconciled to God; when purged by his blood he obtains the remission of sins, and clothed with righteousness, just as if it were his own, stands secure before the judgment-seat of heaven.” Concerning God’s acceptance of our good works after justification Calvin suggested:
Forgiveness of sins being previously given, the good works which follow have a value different from their merit, because whatever is imperfect in them is covered by the perfection of Christ and all their blemishes and pollutions are wiped away by his purity, so as never to come under the cognizance of the divine tribunal…and the imperfection which is wont to sully even good works being buried, the good works which are done by believers are deemed righteous, or; which is the same thing, are imputed for righteousness.